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NBC’s Tightrope Walk With ‘Deal’

Apr 17, 2006  •  Post A Comment

As NBC executives plan their fall schedule, they have to wonder how long their “Deal” will last.

In just a few months, the disarmingly simple game show “Deal or No Deal” has helped NBC regain viewers in the network’s biggest trouble spot this season, the 8 p.m. (ET) hour.

“Deal,” which features comedian Howie Mandel as host, a mysterious “banker” and 26 briefcase-toting models doling out cash prizes to amped-up contestants, had already been a success in 35 countries before NBC introduced it for a week-long run in mid-December. The show quickly caught on with viewers intrigued with the notion of watching whether “Deal” hopefuls would go home millionaires or walk away with only a penny.

But the potential fallout of the rapid success of a network game show like this is all too familiar to network execs, whose memories are fresh with the cautionary tale of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

In 1999 ABC hit the jackpot with the series and started running “Millionaire” up to five times a week, which many industry insiders said oversaturated the schedule with the show and eventually killed its prime-time run.

It also sent ABC into a ratings tailspin.

As ABC was seven years ago, NBC is in fourth place among 18- to 49-year-olds. And like ABC did back then, NBC could be tempted to schedule as many episodes of the relatively cheap and quickly produced episodes of “Deal” that are available to help shore up its 8 p.m. hour for the rest of the season.

While both “Deal” and “Millionaire” are game shows, the similarity ends there, said John Rash, senior VP and director of broadcast operations for ad agency Campbell Mithun.

“‘Deal or No Deal’ has not ascended to the pop culture status of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,'” Mr. Rash said, noting that NBC has more flexibility with scheduling “Deal” since it is not the closely monitored media phenomenon “Millionaire” was in its heyday.

In the short term, NBC’s discovery of a successful program at 8 p.m. trumps any other concerns, he said.

“Considering the alternative, NBC owes its audience, advertisers and affiliates the best and highest-rated possible programming any given night,” Mr. Rash said.

“Deal” puts NBC in a no-lose situation. Overscheduling may weaken the show but gives the network the much-needed ratings boost it needs now. And if “Deal” does decline, that’s more of an issue for the production company behind the show, Endemol USA.

Either way, “Deal” has certainly been beneficial to NBC.

After the Olympics, NBC put “Deal” back on the schedule Feb. 27. Since then the network has been running it two or three times a week at 8 p.m., enjoying ratings increases NBC could only dream about earlier in the season. For nonsports programming, the network is up 67 percent on Mondays in the time period in adults 18 to 49, up 73 percent on Fridays and 88 percent on Wednesdays, thanks to “Deal.”

“‘Deal’ has really put us on the map at that point in the evening,” Mitch Metcalf, executive VP of program planning and scheduling for the network, said of the 8 p.m. hour.

Easily scheduled, cheap to produce shows like “Deal” are rare assets for networks. NBC’s last utility player was “Dateline,” which drove the newsmagazine craze of the mid-1990s and helped solidify NBC’s No. 1 position in the demo.

The extra episodes of “Deal” that NBC has gobbled up in recent months no doubt are a boon to Endemol USA. But Endemol President David Goldberg said his ultimate goal is to make “Deal” a profitable long-term franchise that can be translated to additional arenas, such as syndication or the Spanish-language broadcast market. “We have to resist the temptation to stuff our pockets now and try to play this asset out over three or four years, across a lot of different platforms,” Mr. Goldberg said.

Reconciling Endemol’s needs with those of the network while maintaining “Deal” is something both entities have to accomplish, Mr. Goldberg said, noting that he understands the pressures NBC faces.

“Networks live for today as opposed to tomorrow,” he said. “They have a much bigger appetite than we do for programming.”

The goal, Mr. Goldberg said, is “finding the correct balance of getting them the boost they need at 8 o’clock without burning out the asset too quickly.”

Mr. Metcalf is aware of the risks of oversaturation.

“You certainly have to be sensitive to the ‘Millionaire’ experience,” he said. “Two or three times a week feels right for the moment because we are still setting records for the show, we are expanding the audience, we are still growing on the half-hour. All the indicators look good.”

Because “Deal” is so simple (contestants don’t have to answer trivia questions or perform stunts), an argument could be made for NBC to run the series as many times as possible in a short period of time, since “Deal” may have a limited shelf life regardless of how seldom it airs per week. That’s an argument Mr. Metcalf isn’t buying.

“Is there an expiration date? I’m not sure,” he said. “You don’t want to assume there is one and air episodes like crazy. You want to act like this is a great franchise that will last forever.”

That means protecting the “Deal” brand, Mr. Metcalf said. “There’s the jumping-the-shark aspect,” he said. “If we really got into the ‘Celebrity Deal or No Deal,’ or ‘Sports League Deal or No Deal,’ [we’re] really accelerating the demise of the show.”